Imagine the sound of a thousand school bells ringing incessantly, then add to that the constant roar of crashing waves, somehow sounding far away yet simultaneously right inside the ears. And you can’t switch it off or even turn it down.
That’s tinnitus. At least, that’s what mine sounds like.
For others it can be beeping, grinding, humming or buzzing. None of which sound appealing, especially when trying to sleep or concentrate or follow conversations.
Tinnitus is the medical name for noises we hear that do not come from the outside world, and it is just one aspect of hearing damage. Hearing loss is a condition most people assume means silence, but it can actually feel deafeningly loud.
Sometimes the “ringing in the ears” is temporary. For many, like me, it is a permanent, intrusive and untreatable sensation. I have been deaf since birth: a hereditary defect of the inner bones that causes approximately 70 per cent hearing loss in both ears and tinnitus as a side effect. But for a growing cohort, it is an entirely preventable condition.
One billion at risk
A report published this month in the British Medical Journal, estimated that more than one billion 12-34-year-olds globally are putting themselves at risk of hearing problems by “unsafe listening”. Using headphones and going to venues with dangerous sound levels being the major factors. The damage can be immediate and fleeting, like a buzzing in the ears for a couple of days, or chronic and wide-ranging affecting the ability to hear speech or the full range of music again. And it’s not just hearing that is under threat.
Unaddressed impairments have “serious impacts on individuals and families”, the report says, and there is “an urgent need” for action because hearing loss can affect concentration, mental health, cognitive function and academic achievement. Other studies have linked it with an increased chance of developing dementia.
While the deaf community may find this stark warning overly negative and in some ways dismissive of a full culture that thrives perfectly well without sound, there is a definite cause for alarm.
Damage that can last a lifetime
Examining 33 studies from 20 countries, it found that a quarter of all young people are exposed to unsafe volumes by listening to their devices through headphones, while almost half experience harmful sound levels at events or venues.
Even a single instance of unsafe listening can cause physiological damage to the ears that can last a lifetime, the report says. But it’s more likely to be long-lasting after prolonged and repeated exposure to high volumes.
$1 trillion annual cost
There is a sizeable economic cost too, estimated at almost $1 trillion a year. Almost half of each annual bill is due to “quality of life losses”, according to a paper in the International Journal of Audiology.
As for the personal financial burden, a single hearing aid can cost up to $4,000, while a cochlear implant averages between $30,000 and $50,000, then add to that ongoing maintenance charges, batteries and check-ups. Even with schemes like the over-the-counter drive in the United States or the UK’s National Health Service provisions, there are limitations and additional costs.
Dr Shelly Chadha, who oversees the World Health Organisation’s work on prevention of deafness, told The National: “While individuals are responsible for their own listening behaviours, governments, civil society and private sector entities have the responsibility for creating an environment where people are empowered to listen safely.”
Deanne Thomas, Chief Executive of the British Tinnitus Association, says the lack of protection for people exposed to noise via gaming and mobile devices “needs to be addressed as a public health issue”.
Smart phones already go a long way to encourage safe listening practises and venues and events the world over are subject to noise laws. Yet cases are still rising. So what can change?
Test, test and test
Dr Jamal Kassouma, an ear, nose and throat consultant in the UAE says young people need to have their hearing tested as regularly as they visit a dentist ― which should be at least every six months (in case you need reminding).
“Checking your teeth or vision every year is quite normal while testing your hearing isn't a reflex yet,” says tinnitus coach Frieder Kuhne. Now 32, he started experiencing tinnitus when he was 19: “I went clubbing a lot and back then hearing protection was not common at all. All the fun I had led to early onset hearing loss”.
Supporting people to develop coping mechanisms is what helped him with his own “biggest weakness”. “It would be my wish,” he says, “that people know the risk they take in exposing themselves”.
Turn it down now
So, as the adage goes, prevention is always better than cure.
“Hearing loss caused by listening to loud sounds is permanent; it is also completely preventable”, Dr Chadha says.
So if we can convince you of anything today, please, for the good of your hearing and your health, turn it down now, before it is too late.